Breast-cancer survivor Tanya da Silva Ferreira has made it her mission to share her harrowing story of beating cancer.
Last month was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but the Parklands wife and mother of two says “breast cancer is not only in October”.
In 2012, after finding a lump in her left breast, Tanya learnt she had invasive ductal breast cancer.
In 2013, after six months of chemotherapy, she had a double mastectomy.
“When I first heard the diagnosis,” she says, “it was as if the earth had stopped spinning on its axis for that split second. Inside me, at the core of my being, a volcano erupted. The one thought that immediately crossed my mind was, ‘What about my children and family?’”
Her first four chemotherapy sessions comprised a cocktail called the “red devil” because of its colour and toxicity. After just two bouts with the red devil, Tanya lost her hair and suffered short-term memory loss, nausea, loss of appetite, and bone-and-muscle pain.
Her family, friends and colleagues were her “anchor” at this time, she says.
“I wore a wig to functions, bandannas now and then but often went bald. I knew that I had to go through it to fight it and walked with my head held high.”
On her 37th birthday, two months before she was due to have surgery, Tanya heard her white blood count was very low and she could not have chemotherapy until it had risen.
Susceptible to infection, she stayed indoors to protect her immune system. Her husband assisted her with Neupogen injections in her stomach to boost her cell count. The pain she experienced in her bones from the injection could not be fought off with painkillers, she says.
After three days, her cell count was up and she could continue chemotherapy.
In April she had the 17-hour surgery to remove both her breasts and have them reconstructed using fat, skin and blood vessels from the wall of her lower belly. There was no trace of cancer in the right breast but it was removed along with the left one as a precaution.
“A couple of hours after coming out of theatre, I was rushed back as I had a blood clot, which needed to be removed. I asked the doctors and nurses in my unconscious state of mind not to inform my family and burden them with additional worry.”
Four days later Tanya was ready to get out of bed with the help of a physiotherapist, but with “two drains and a couple of machines” connected to her it wasn’t easy.
After being discharged from hospital, Tanya spent six weeks at home, recovering. But her battle was not over. Radiation sessions, physiotherapy, and a hysterectomy – as part of preventative treatment – still lay ahead.
In June 2013, she got the “allclear”, but Tanya points out that “life after cancer is not as glorious as life after the flu”.
“Many people think that after your treatment the journey has ended and life is normal, but we have to find our own ‘normal’ psychologically and physically. I cannot explain the feeling of absolute respect for life.”
Shortly after being diagnosed, Tanya started a non-profit organisation, Breast Cancer Awareness South Africa (BCASA).
“My dream and calling going forward is to help others, to share my story and to be there to uplift their spirits when they are down.
“My story sounds like a lot for one person to go through, and I only touched on some issues a cancer patient faces daily, but it is worth every side effect when you wake up in the morning and you can live another day and spend time with the people you love.”